At least, that is, unless overheard, written, or recorded. Just ask anyone following the presidential campaigns. Absent concrete evidence, spoken words evaporate and any discussion of them quickly devolves into the type of “he said, she said” game usually seen in low-budget television courtroom dramas and on playgrounds. A few weeks ago, my colleague Peter Sloan posted All we really need to know about Information Governance we learned in kindergarten. Let’s ponder an additional learning point from Mr. Fulgham:
When you go out into the world, watch for traffic.
Why? Situational awareness, decorum, discretion, and caution are underrated and too seldom observed in today’s tweeting, emailing, Instagram world, much to some people’s detriment. In business, as in politics, failing to look both ways before speaking can yield unintended consequences. Unlike traffic that happens in real-time, however, our ill-considered written and recorded speech lives on, making possible wreck after wreck, a little like Groundhog Day with no happy ending.
And so business email, in particular, should become a bastion of well-thought-out discourse. Back in the Dark Ages, when we wrote letters and took them to the Post Office to mail, we had the opportunity to think before we hit Send. Having typed my share of correspondence over the years, I can attest that thoughts changed, tempers cooled, and wisdom often prevailed in the time it took to get a letter out the door, especially if we missed the 5 PM deadline.
Unfortunately, although our need to look both ways before sending has not changed, the time we are allotted to do so has. Expectations for immediate response prevail, giving little time for reflection on what we are about to say. Our very real challenge is to push back. To refuse to be sucked into the time game and to consider our options for response (or proffer) via e-communications. And we do have options: no response, response via phone or in person, limited e-response, and more. In any case, whatever e-response or proffer we make, we must take the time to consider what we are saying and how it may be viewed weeks or years from now by someone adverse to us.
One public servant has even gone so far as to eliminate his work email entirely, reasons unknown. Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin “has no work email address and conducts all state business by phone, by letter, or by having staff monitor the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s general account.” A little extreme, perhaps, given the reality of technological change, but certainly one way to enforce the time rule!
I’ve purposely left out of this discussion the tremendous monetary and reputational costs associated with “bad” messaging, because there’s plenty to read on that elsewhere.
As Emily Dickenson presaged more than a hundred years ago,
A WORD is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
Let’s heed her advice and be smarter about our communications, at least in business, if not in our own lives.